Historiann on Who Do You Think You Are

UPDATE, 8/31/15 11:50 a.m.  Well, that was fast.  The first video was terminated!  I’ll let you know if I find another copy somewhere, but if you go to the Who Do You Think You Are schedule, you’ll see the promo with a glimpse of me today.  In the meantime, try the link below.

French Protestants!  Religious persecution!  Siege and starvation!  Migration and the bounty of the New World!  It’s all posted on YouTube, at least for now:

Tonight’s the night: Historiann moves up from C-SPAN 3 to basic cable

HistoriannTomBergeronTonight’s the night! Set your DVRs for TLC tonight at 9 Eastern/8 Central for Who Do You Think You Are.  (Be sure to check your local listings–I told people here the show would be on at 8 p. Mountain time, but it turns out that cable here conforms to the Eastern show times!)  You’ll see me join Tom Bergeron in Québec towards the end of his quest to learn about his 10th and ninth great-grandparents.

I don’t know all the details and will be eager to learn them tonight, but from what I learned on our shoot last month, it’s a story that spans France and early Canada.  The stories we’ll see are emblematic of the age of religious wars and migration to the New World.  Join us and let me know what you think! Continue reading

Public engagement: ask not why, but why not?

QuebecCityhotel7-4-15

View from my hotel room, Quebec City, July 4, 2015.

Yesterday’s post on the latest panic over the fictitious “epidemic” of “p.c.” on American college and university campuses got me thinking about something else I’ve been meaning to write about here on the subject of public engagement. Our students are the public we engage most frequently, so the two subjects are interrelated. Those of us who are open to and generous with our students will probably have an easier time thinking about the role that public engagement plays in our work life.  Public engagement is now a component of how faculty are evaluated every year, so it’s a good thing for all of us to think about now that we’ve rounded third base of summer and are headed for home and a new semester.

I’ve alluded to this before, but because the air date approaches soon, I can tell you that I was invited to collaborate and participate on-camera in an episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” which will air on TLC at 9 EDT/8 Central on Sunday, August 30. I would encourage any historian contacted by the show’s researchers to communicate with them and share your knowledge, because unlike some other shows and cable channels that traffic in historical content–cough**TheHistoryChannel**coughcough–“WhoDo” researchers and producers take pride in learning from their collaborators and encourage us to play a role in developing the most interesting stories that a celebrity subject might want to learn about. Continue reading

Crossing over, part III: The uses and limits of literary models

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Mary with Laura holding Susan. Illustration by Garth Williams, Little House in the Big Woods, 1932

Today’s post is an unanticipated part III in my series Crossing Over, on writing and publishing an academic book that aims to be a “crossover” title with a popular audience.  Part I can be found here, “What is my book about?”, and Part II here, “Will I ever publish this book?”  Many thanks to those of you in the comments on those posts who encouraged me to write a Part III.  I hope to hear from the rest of you as to the writers and titles you see as your historical and literary models.

One of the challenges in writing The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (Yale University Press, forthcoming 2016) was the fact that her life is very eventful early in childhood and adolescence, and then again in old age–a reversal of most biographies, which tend to focus on the adult years of a subject’s life, and offer only scant attention to their youths and their decline in old age.  But while her childhood was very eventful–taken captive at age 7, brought to New France at age 12, and announced her intention to become a nun at age 14–most of it before she enters the Ursuline convent as a student at age 12 is only very lightly documented.

How does one write the history of an eighteenth-century childhood, especially one almost entirely undocumented?  Although I was powerfully influenced by the historians I’ve been reading all my professional life, especially those who have focused on telling the story of a single life, I saw this as more of a literary problem than a historical one.  That is, I knew what I could do as a historian–I just didn’t know how I could bring it all together.  Or, as I wrote in part I of the Crossing Over series a few weeks ago: Continue reading

Crossing over, part II: Will I ever publish this book?

Do I feel lucky?

Do I feel lucky?

Howdy, friends!  Today’s post is part II about how I wrote and got a contract for the book I’ll publish next year, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (2016).  For part I of this series, “Crossing Over:  What is my book about?” click here.  When last I left you, I had just arrived at the Huntington and presented a draft of my introduction to a terrific seminar that meets there, Past Tense, which focuses on the craft of writing history and the choices historians make.  The people there seemed to like the intro and expressed enthusiasm for the project overall.

After the Past Tense seminar last autumn, I contacted the agent I had been in touch with more than six years earlier, and sent him the first four chapters and my introduction.  He replied with admirable alacrity–within a week, said that the four chapters were “very interesting” and “very impressive,” but he utterly disliked my introduction, which was not just an introduction to Esther Wheelwright, but also a short essay on the politics of early American historical biography and our preference as both writers and readers to read the same damn so-called “Founding Father” biographies over and over again.  (Longtime readers here will recognize this complaint!)

The agent informed me that my introduction was out-of-date and the feminist analysis was tedious and “hectoring,” and said that he wasn’t interested in representing me.  I talked to some of my friends about this, and they bolstered my sense that I should stick to my guns.  I didn’t write this book just to tell a fascinating story about a little girl and a woman (although I do that!)–I wrote it so that I could make a larger point about U.S. American history, and whose stories get told and whose stories get left out. Continue reading

Crossing over, part I: What is my book about?

View of Quebec City across the St. Lawrence

View of Quebec City across the St. Lawrence

In a post last weekend, I revealed that my forthcoming book, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (Yale University Press, forthcoming 2016) would be published as a crossover academic-trade title.  Some of you expressed interest in how I got a contract like this, as many of the scholar-readers here are interested in writing beyond a traditional academic audience of other professors and their students.  So, I’ll tell you my story and do my best to draw a few lessons out of it.

(Over the last several years, I would tell junior scholars who asked about how I got my first book published to ask the same question of a lot of other people, because it seems like no two journeys to a publisher and to publication are the same.  Maybe this is a truth universally acknowledged?  Those of you with more experience, PLEASE weigh in with your ideas, advice, and experiences!) Continue reading

Writers, readers, publishers, and money

Ursuline convent, Quebec, July 10, 2015

Ursuline convent, Quebec, July 10, 2015

Liz Covart has a post on her blog called “How to Write for Your Readers,” which is effectively a post about “How to Write for Readers Beyond Your Colleagues and their Students.”  She points out that journalists are very effective at writing history books that people actually buy and read.  They’re eating our lunches!

History books written by journalists tend to be more popular than those written by professionally-trained historians because journalists write them to reveal history in a way that readers want to discover more about it.

In contrast, professionally-trained historians tend to write books that emphasize argument. Historians present the main topic of their book in a way that supports the case they are trying to make. Our books tend to be more about argument than story.

To encourage historians to think about story first, she reports on an interview with Mitchell Zuckoff, a journalism professor and author of two historical books that landed on the New York Times bestseller list, she shares his very good advice for effective storytelling.  His advice–quite good, actually–boils down to these three points:  Find a fascinating story focused on human actors, make sure there are plenty of sources to help you tell it, and finally, write the story for a broad audience and rewrite agressively.  I especially like his advice about reading your drafts out loud to identify writing and syntax problems, and to help you cut out the parts that just aren’t working.  (Read Liz’s discussion of his advice–it’s more thorough than this brief summary.)

This is all good advice, but I think the issue of journalists who write books that people buy versus historians who write books for other historians is oversimplified, and ignores the question of resources, platforms, and marketing that work to the advantage of the journalists who write a history book or two.  Commercial publishers want to publish books not to help obscure writers make a name for themselves; they want to publish books by people who are already well-known because they think (rightly!) that a journalist with a prominent perch at a national newspaper or (better yet) who regularly appear on television will help them sell more books. Continue reading